My very own underdog story…

By Aditya in Stories » True Story
Updated 20:14 IST Jul 02, 2017

It was the summer of 2000 when I first met Sandeep on field. We were called by the senior team for tryouts at the Nehru Stadium. Back then it was the biggest cricketing arena in Pune and the only stadium which hosted international matches. I was nervous and very excited about the prospects of playing for my college team. I walked in gingerly and saw familiar faces on the far right corner. A few seniors stood there dressed in whites talking seriously while the aspirants stood in awe. One of the seniors called our names and quickly segregated us as per skills. Without wasting much time the aspiring batsmen were asked to pad up while the bowlers lined up at their bowling mark.  

The sessions started, a tall and skinny fellow went to bat, he was so nervous that he didn’t even bother to take guard. His stance was awkward and just stood there with a very tight grip on his bat. He tried to play cross bat shots of the first few balls and failed to connect. The reaction of the seniors said it all, he was a tennis ball player, but they had to give him a chance nevertheless. Every batsmen had two overs to show what they had and likewise for the bowlers. It was the fourth or fifth ball that he faced which would be Sandeep’s first delivery. He ran in from 21 paces, his run up was smooth with a natural side-on action reminiscent of Aaqib Javed. The ball had decent pace on it and jagged back to hit the batsmen just above the vulnerable spot. The batsmen collapsed and was in serious pain, everyone was worried. Sandeep ran through to the other end and helped him straighten up. The seniors rushed in and offered him water. After a few scary moments he smiled and said he was ok. He was taken off and we realized that he was not wearing a guard underneath. Today I laugh as I think about the close shave he had, but it could have been a horrible injury. 

Unruffled by the hit, Sandeep went on bowling through the rest of the session with pace and intent and pretty well marked his arrival. I didn’t do bad either, although I was not as tall and broad as Sandeep, my high arm action and delivery stride allowed me to bowl with accurate line and length although at a slightly slower pace. I was happy to see approval on the seniors faces and elated when they called my name for practice sessions to be held every morning at the ILS law college ground. Needless to say, Sandeep made it too.

The rest of the summer was probably the finest time we had together. Three rounds of the ground followed by catches and fielding drills followed by net sessions for an hour or two. White flannels, red markings on the right thigh, sweat on the leather and the likes. Oh and needless to say the extreme exaggeration, even a hint of movement would be labeled as massive swing. That followed by tea and bun at the ILS canteen with a constant look out for good sights.

It was early June when the summer session was about to conclude, when the senior team captain called us all for a meeting. He praised us all for the hard work we had put in and and expressed satisfaction with our performance. To our delight he declared that the teachers were so impressed that they have approved a second team for the forthcoming D’mello cup organized by PDCA. Hardly two months of practice and we would be playing our first tournament, it was an amazing feeling. I still remember Sandeep’s eyes, it was his moment, he wanted to be there, he belonged there to perform and make his mark. He lived to play cricket, engineering just happened along.

Have you ever felt this way? Individually you are excited and proud of being a part of the team but collectively the team feels unsure and insignificant. Our first match was at the NES Wadia College grounds against Loyola junior college team, who walked in with an air of confidence and experience. The way they moved around reflected a self belief we didn’t knew. We lost the toss and went into field. We lost the match but Sandeep impressed everyone with his mean bowling. He picked up the wicket of an important middle order batsmen. I too had a decent outing and scalped both the opening batsmen in the very first over and had my moment of glory, but then this is not my story.      

It was our third match of the tournament when we all saw the hero in Sandeep and lived every minute of the quintessential underdog story. I was there and I remember everything as if it happened yesterday.

It was a typical August morning, cool and overcast. We were to play AFMC team at their home ground. We reached the gates in time and an armed soldier checked our IDs, kits and frisked us before we entered the college premise. The buildings and neatly manicured lawns had army discipline plastered all over. Students in white overcoats walked the campus unlike anywhere we had seen earlier. We lost our natural nonsense attitude and went to the ground quietly. AFMC team was already there doing their fielding drills. We occupied a space in a corner and started catching practice. Few seniors from our college accompanied us to cheer us, they knew it was a tough game.

The D’mello cup follows the test cricket pattern of 2 innings per team to be completed (if possible) in a day. An outright victory would give the winning team 8 points, a draw with first inning lead yields 5 points to 3, while a draw with incomplete first inning would give 4 points each. An outright win would be possible only in a horribly lopsided match, ours just looked to be a similar contest in the making. Figure this, I was the lead seam bowler along with Sandeep and I stood at 165cm while most boys from AFMC were well and truly above 180cm. Other than Sandeep and I, we had an all spin attack, which was quite frankly a hopeless proposition. The team had lost the game even before the first ball was bowled. Sandeep though was focused and in a no nonsense mood.

We went into bat and were bundled out for 80 odd runs in the first innings. None of our top order batsmen made double digit score, they had no answer to the pace and bounce of the AFMC boys. Sandeep was unbeaten on 14, with the second highest score being extras through byes or leg byes. Batting at no. 11, I went for a duck off a neat edge to first slip. We returned to the pavilion sheepishly, a few even daring to smile through the fiasco. Sandeep was visibly angry, he would not say a word in front of the seniors but he did not approve of the “give up” attitude. He wanted to contest and salvage pride, he wont go down like a sheep.

We went into bowl and Sandeep’s resolve rubbed off. We had a decent opening spell as we picked a wicket each, I went for a few runs though. We had barely bowled 3 overs each when for reasons known to himself, the captain bought in the spinners. We lost the early advantage and from around 30 for 2, AFMC went on to make 200 plus at the loss of 4 wickets and declared their inning. With almost 3 hours left in the day, it was obvious that they would go for the kill.    

The captain and seniors bought the team in a huddle and tried to motivate us to perform better. We had to survive three hours to deny them 8 points and leave the ground with pride. Yes, that was doable, the morning chill was gone and it was nice and bright in the afternoon. Our batsmen went in and certainly showed better resolve but about 2 hours in the match and we were again languishing at 80 odd for 8. Sandeep and another tail-ender were trying their best. The only positive was that their seamers were tired and spin was in effect. I had butterflies in my stomach, I had no courage to walk in there. The two of them pushed on for another 10 minutes before our number 9 was caught at forward short leg of a thick inside edge.

My heart was racing, I somehow walked in to the wicket, typical no. 11 having no clue of his helmet and pad position. Sandeep walked ahead to greet me and looked me in the eye, “Adya, 15 minute yaar, sodu nako, please.” (Aditya, 15 minutes more dear, don’t give up, please). I had two balls to face of the over. I do not remember a thing of what happened. I was blank but I managed to survive. We got together in between the over and Sandeep just tapped me on my shoulder, “don’t run unless I call.” His instructions were plain and simple. I stood there at the non striker and watched Sandeep defend with a straight bat and took a single of the last ball. He kept me of strike and took the fight for another over, he was too good for a number 9. This went on for another couple of overs and I managed to defend a few more balls as well.

The lectures must have been done with, since lot of other students gathered around to cheer the home team. We were outdone by 100 to 5 in the stands. That’s when it all started. AFMC saw victory and wanted it at any cost, they wont give up after playing so well so far. They also saw Sandeep’s resolve and knew their chances were slipping away with every passing over. Maybe 2 or 3 overs left for the day, they started sledging. It was nasty, unmentionable and something that would ruffle the best of players. Sandeep kept his cool. He went to the umpire and politely requested to look-in. The umpire promptly patted him on his back and asked him to take it lightly, it was just a game, for him, it wasn’t just a game for Sandeep though. Penultimate over and the sledging went too far, the close in fielders kept urging him to hit the ball out of the park or else go …… . The straight bat came in defense every single time and sneaked a single of the last balls at will.

Last 6 balls to go, I was at the non striker watching Sandeep offer his straight bat. They tried everything but it wont get past his defense. Last ball of the day and the slip fielder came close to Sandeep and said, “ab to marke dikha” (show us if you can hit at least now). And it happened, Sandeep danced down the wicket and lofted the ball straight down the ground right of the middle of the bat. The bat made the sweetest sound of the day and the ball landed just a few feet before the rope for a boundary. It could have gone either way, but it was his day and a hero deserved a hero’s homecoming. Sandeep ran to me and hugged me, I played my little part of being there but it earned me my place of a worthy side kick. We walked back to our team with our head held high. AFMC captain and the team shook hands with us and asked Sandeep to let go of the sledging, nothing was personal. Sandeep graciously agreed.  

I don’t remember what happened next, we must have packed the kits and boarded our bus back home. The records suggest we lost the match 5 points to 3 to AFMC, but we remember that day denying them 8 points in their backyard. It was just an inter-college game, not even club cricket, but for me, it will remain etched in my memory for ever, cause I was there and I saw an ordinary individual transforming into a hero. We are all heroes of our own lives but that day I realized it is ok to be a support character in somebody else show. There are loads and loads of books and movies about sports and how the game can motivate you to be a better individual, but to be honest, you wont feel it unless you live the sport.

I lived my little underdog story and every time I remember the day, it teaches me something else. You must have lived one too, do share.

Oh just in case you are curious, Sandeep struggled through his engineering but it never mattered. He went on to play club cricket and graduated to being a certified coach. Today he is surrounded by kids of all all age groups and he is busy making champions out of them. Ok not everyone ends up being a Sachin and represent India, but it is not bad being a Sandeep either, ain’t it?  

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